As the ‘mother church’ of the Midwest’s largest concentration of Armenian Americans, with more than 75 years of service beneath its ecclesiastical belt, you’d think that St. John’s of Southfield would be better known.  And it is, according to Pastor and Arch Priest The Reverend Father Garabed D. Kochakian, but far more as a visual icon than a center for Armenian spirituality.

“When I say I’m the pastor of St. John’s, I get some blank looks,” smiles Father Kochakian in his comfortable office.  “But when I say, have you noticed the domed church across from Northland… the one with the golden roof?  Well, then there’s instant recognition!”

St. John’s was the fitting place for us to begin our in-depth study of the Armenian culture here in Detroit, as like most cultures, the identity of the Armenian people is in part bound up with their faith.  And, as Father Kochakian points out, “Armenia was the first country to declare Christianity as its state religion, the result of the proselytizing of Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew.”

As an extremely brief overview of the Armenian Orthodox faith, it can be stated that essential doctrine includes acceptance of the first three ecumenical councils of the Christian Church: the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.), the Council of Constantinople (381 A.D.), and the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.).  The essential dogmas of the church are founded on these councils, with the Nicean Creed being the major doctrinal basis for their beliefs. 

A tour of the magnificent church, which is as splendid inside as outside, was a highlight of our interview with Father Kochakian, and we also had a chance to get to know Rubik Mailian, St. John’s charismatic choir director.

Of course, a culture is more than a set of religious mandates, and it is our expectation to delve deeply into the social, culinary and uniquely ‘Armenian’ values that make up this enclave.  As we assured Father Kochakian, to his evident satisfaction, we intend to cover the impact of the Armenian Genocide of the early twentieth century on the Diaspora which brought many of our Armenian families to Detroit.

Lucy Ardash, director of the Alex and Marie Manoogian Museum, allowed us an off-hours tour of this marvelous showcase for Armenian culture and includes manuscripts that go back to the fifteenth century and ancient coins dated from pre-Christian Armenia as well as paintings by Ivan Aivazovsky and other famous Armenian artists.  The museum, of course, was funded by  the late philanthropist and industrialist Alex Manoogian, born in 1901 in Smyrna, a town that was destroyed by the Turks. In 1929, Manoogian founded a company that became the multibillion-dollar Masco Corp.